What Really Motivates You at Work?

When we work hard, we generally expect our efforts to be recognized by our employer. And most employers will do just that — showering someone with praise at a company meeting, taking a team to a nice dinner, or quietly delivering a cash bonus. But sometimes an employer’s broader recognition strategy does not align with what its individual workers want and need. Some workers may be incentivized by more paid time off, while others may appreciate a gift card to a local shop. And some workers may be motivated by monetary rewards, while others hope to be assigned the role of team lead on the next high-stakes project. In this article, the author offers five practical techniques you can start using today to increase the likelihood of getting the rewards and recognition you value most.

Most of us want to feel rewarded and recognized for a job well done. And most employers want to incentivize their workers to perform well and stay engaged. While these two things should align, employers unfortunately don’t always get it right. A team dinner can be a fun culmination of a group project, or it can feel like a frustrating stand-in if you were hoping for a monetary reward. On the flip side, a cash bonus quietly appearing in your inbox may feel strange if you expected public recognition for a heroic work accomplishment. Yet some people would rather call in sick than stand in front of their colleagues to receive an award.

It’s easy to feel disappointed and frustrated when your employer’s “thank you” gestures don’t align with what you want and need. Fortunately, there are things that you, as the employee, can do to help your employer reward and recognize you in ways you prefer. While a lot has been written about how to get recognized at work via promotion, less attention is given to how employees can experience personally meaningful rewards and recognition as part of their everyday work.

I’ve worked in industry as an organizational psychologist for over a decade and, through my research, I’ve seen how workplace rewards and recognition have the greatest positive (and intended) impact when they match the needs and preferences of the employee. In this article, I recommend five techniques to increase the likelihood of getting the rewards and recognition you value most.

1. Reflect

As with many things, the first step is to do some internal reflection. Ask yourself the following questions to help identify what’s important and meaningful to you:

2. List and rank rewards that motivate you

Next, try to make what you desire tangible. Make a list of work experiences and rewards that make you feel excited. These can be both your past experiences (I loved travelling to London for business) and future aspirations (I want to lead my own team). Are there prestigious trainings or professional awards that interest you? How would you feel about being awarded extra paid or unpaid time off? What if you had the opportunity to pick your next work project or were allocated time at work to pursue a passion project? How do you feel about team offsites or other business travel? Try to make this list as long as possible while staying true to your needs and motivations.

Once you have a sizeable list of, say 5-10 rewards, try to rank order the items on it. For example, you may strongly prefer financial incentives to help you pay off your student loans. If a cash bonus weren’t possible, what would come next on the list for you? Would you prefer a personalized material gift? A day off work? The option to work remotely more often? The purpose of this list is to enable you to identify where these personally valued forms of reward and recognition occur in your organization, and to clarify what upward feedback you should give your manager on your preferences.

3. Notice what’s happening on your team

With a better understanding of your internal motivations and priorities, you can now begin to take action in your external environment, at work. Note when and where the tangible experiences, rewards, and recognition that you ranked highly are happening on your team. For example, if you want more public recognition as part of your work, look for projects where people are receiving recognition and are highly visible to leadership. If you want a better work-life balance, investigate where people are achieving this within your organization. Raise your hand for these opportunities and roles when they come up. Seek out and invest in relationships with peers who share your values and interests, and with potential mentors or sponsors that you think can help you along the way.

4. Communicate with your manager

Open communication with your manager is one of the most effective ways to ensure you get the rewards and recognition you want at work. Ask your manager for a career conversation, where you can talk about your passions, interests, goals, and values more broadly. Share with them some of your thoughts on the types of rewards and recognition that help you feel engaged and motivated. If you’ve identified any experiences or opportunities taking place in your organization that would be rewarding to you, express your interest and ask what would be needed to bring these to life — in the short or long term.

5. Provide feedback

Finally, give your manager — and company — feedback. Sometimes a manager or company’s attempt to reward and recognize you won’t hit the mark. Your manager might recognize your on-schedule completion of a high-stakes project by publicly celebrating your team at a departmental meeting, when you were hoping they would recognize your work by assigning you to lead the next high-profile project. Your company might schedule a fun offsite far from your home, which requires you to secure additional childcare to attend.

Seek out opportunities to express gratitude while also delivering constructive feedback to help your employer give you what you need. And make sure you give your feedback after you receive a gift or experience. (If you want to stay in the good graces of your management and the event planners, it’s not a great idea to criticize a team offsite while you’re at the offsite.)

. . .

You may be engaged in your work, stimulated by your team, and motivated by your employer’s mission. But their rewards and recognition strategy may need improving. To keep a good thing going, reflect on and talk about what you want and need to feel appreciated and validated. You’ll help your employer improve their approach to acknowledging employee contributions, all while clarifying your unique motivations and increasing the likelihood you’ll receive the outcomes that matter to you.

Employee incentives, Motivating people, Developing employees, Leadership and managing people, Human resource management, Managing yourself, Digital Article

Carrie Ott-Holland
Carrie Ott-Holland works as principal people analyst at Klaviyo. She has worked in people analytics and talent management in the tech industry for the past decade and is an organizational psychologist by training.

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